I really enjoyed this communication from Rabbi Larry Milder of Beth Emek in Pleasanton. It’s a bit of Jewish and American history for the 4th of July. Jews have fled to many countries and in America we did indeed find a country where we are allowed to practice our tradition.
What Independence Day Means to Jews
In 1654, 23 refugees fled the Portuguese Inquisition and arrived in New Amsterdam (now lower Manhattan). It was an inauspicious beginning to what would become a love affair between Jews and America.
These first Jews in North America were not particularly welcomed by the Dutch governor of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant. Stuyvesant, a Calvinist, felt that if the Jews were allowed to remain in the colony, then Catholics and Lutherans would also feel entitled to settle there. He was overruled, however, by the board of the Dutch West India Company, which sponsored the colony and had, fortuitously, a significant number of Jewish stockholders back home in Holland.
Jews received a mixed reception in the various colonies of North America. They generally were not given the right to vote or hold public office prior to the Revolutionary War, but in most places they could freely practice Judaism and did not suffer limits on their occupations. What a difference from Europe, and from the religious persecution of the Spanish and Portuguese colonies! In North America, Jews were free to make their fortunes along with all other colonialists, based on their ambition and willingness to work. The spirit of individualism, the mood of rationalism, and the resentment of monarchical rule that suffused the American colonies worked to the advantage of establishing a tolerant environment for the Jews.
Almost 370 years later, we marvel: How far we have come, and how great is our debt of gratitude to this country.
On July 4, Jews have much to celebrate, and much to consider. We know that the work of establishing justice in the gates, of proclaiming liberty throughout the land, is not yet finished. Still, we add to the words of gratitude that are spoken on Independence Day a prayer of our own: Ashreinu, mah tov chelkeinu/How greatly are we blessed, how good is our portion, how beautiful our inheritance.
Rabbi Larry Milder, Congregation Beth Emek